Bethel Elder Esther Green is going to be honored with the Meritorious Service Award from the University of Alaska Fairbanks, becoming the first educator from the Kuskokwim Campus to earn that distinction.
The University of Alaska Fairbanks describes the Meritorious Service Award as a “high and rare honor.”
“When I was told, tears came out. I was shocked,” Green said. “In my lifetime, I thought I wouldn’t be in that situation.”
Green’s journey in the educational world wasn’t an easy one from the beginning.
“When I entered BIA for the very first time, I did not know any English. Somebody interpreted to me that I cannot speak my language in the classroom. So it was really, really hard not being able to speak my teacher’s language,” Green said.
She dropped out of school in 6th grade and started working odd jobs to help her mother pay the bills.
“My mom was in my heart. I need to help her,” Green said.
Green went on to work at the first prematernal home in Bethel. But someone suggested she would be a good teacher, and she received a call from UAF, recruiting her to teach Yup’ik.
“Man, I was so happy,” Green said. “Because I love to work with kids. And depending on my experience, how hard it was for me, I want to help the kids.”
Rather than turn her back on the school system which had denied her parts of her culture as a child, Green set out to make it better. But it was going to be a challenge for someone who had dropped out of formal education in 6th grade. She started as a classroom aide, and went back to get her associate’s degree.
“When I first entered college, it was like entering into another dimension,” Green said.
Green persevered, became a certified Yup’ik Language Arts teacher, and taught with a passion. Even after retiring, she couldn’t stay away from the classroom. Fifteen years ago, she became a program elder for the Rural Human Service Program, or RHS, at the UAF Kuskokwim Campus, a program for rural, village-based human service workers like social workers or counselors. In the classroom, Green translates, shares stories, and offers wisdom in a way that only an elder can. RHS professor Diane McEachern said that her classes often discuss difficult issues like domestic violence, substance abuse, trauma, and grief.
“And sometimes there’s strong emotions,” McEachern said. “And I know that I can turn to Esther and say, ‘What could we do now?’”
McEachern also said that for many students, Green’s presence alone is comforting.
“My students have said that when they walk into the classroom and they see the elders, they get a almost a physical sense of relief,” McEachern said. “Because education has been traumatizing and damaging in many ways. And so to see an elder, your own elder there, is very relaxing and reassuring. And it lets people know that you’re Yup’ik, no matter what. And just because you enter this university, your identity comes with you.”
That’s something Green always emphasizes for her students.
“I always tell them that you can still be yourself, and go to Western education, and what might be useful for you, you can take. It’s ok. Take, and leave what you won’t use,” Green said.
McEachern said that Green has taught her that non-Yup’ik students and teachers can practice that same philosophy of melding the teachings of multiple cultures to realize something greater.
“I’m still Diane, kass’aq Diane, but I see in the Yup’ik culture things that are really healing for society, really. So I kind of do the same. I take her advice and I do it in my way, the way that she’s advising her students,” McEachern said.
Green and McEachern haven’t been able to see their students in person since September 2020 due to the pandemic. In that time, Green became sick with COVID-19 and was medevaced to Anchorage. She said that the journey was a lonely one, and that she’s looking forward to being reunited with her second family.
“I’m anxious to see the students again. When I think of the students, I think of them as my family,” Green said.
In-person classes are due to resume at the end of March, so Green should be able to see those students again soon. Plus, there are plans to hold a special event on April 30 to honor Green for her Meritorious Service Award.